To Marty Gutzler’s girls—Piper, 9, and Sailor, 7—he was the fun dad. He zipped them to school on a motorized scooter, took silly selfies with them and dressed the whole family in matching aquamarine outfits for a portrait on the beach. Aboard the small Piper PA-34 plane that Gutzler co-owned, the Illinois pilot and furniture-store owner, 48, and his wife, Kimberly, 46, made sure the plane’s namesake and her inseparable little sister had crayon sets to keep them busy and pillows to keep them comfy on their New Year’s trip to Florida with cousin Sierra Wilder, 14. “His family meant the world to Marty,” Donna Knight Hicks, Gutzler’s friend since high school, tells PEOPLE. “They did everything together.”
And now the Gutzlers’ hometown of Nashville, Ill., population 3,200, mourns the family together. It also marvels. Because on Jan. 2, as Gutzler piloted his wife, daughters and niece home from Key West—where they visited his stepson Nicholas Brink, who is stationed there with the Navy—the plane suffered engine trouble and crashed in the woods of western Kentucky. Somehow Sailor alone survived.
As the girl later told Kentucky state police troopers, she had, at first, hoped that her parents, sister and cousin, unmoving in the mangled and burning aircraft, were simply asleep. But when she couldn’t wake them, Sailor set off for help. Bloodied and with a broken wrist, the second grader was dressed in her beach-going shorts and just one sock as she navigated brambles and downed trees in freezing darkness, making her way to the only inhabited house in 1,400 acres of woods. She knocked on Larry Wilkins’s front door. “Lips trembling, crying, trying to talk” was how Wilkins described Sailor to CNN. “She said, ‘My mom and dad are dead. We just had a plane crash, and the plane was upside down.’ ” Had the girl set off in any other direction, Wilkins added, she likely wouldn’t have been found for weeks. “The good Lord was with her,” he said.
At Nashville Grade School, just two blocks from the Gutzler home, principal Chuck Fairbanks said the petite Sailor is into gymnastics and dance—”Not the kind of girl you look at and think, ‘She’ll be able to get through all of that stuff.’ She was meant to get out of there.” But Sailor was, in her way, prepared, says Nashville News sports editor Travis Volz, who has known her since she was born. With an older sister and older cousins to keep up with, “Sailor had to be scrappy.” What’s more, says Michele Imrisik, another Nashville friend, “Marty taught his girls survival skills and was always telling them what to do in an emergency.”
Flying since he was 16, Gutzler was training to be a commercial airline pilot when he was furloughed after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and went to work in his father’s furniture store. But he kept up his pilot’s license—”He was always improving his skills,” says a family friend—and regularly flew the family to see Brink, who, with sister Kasie Dlubala, are Kimberly’s children with her first husband (who died in a car accident). “Marty’s flown that route dozens if not hundreds of times,” says Volz. As a couple, the Gutzlers were self-deprecating and funny, Volz adds. “They’d tell a story and it would be belly laughs.” As parents, they were doting. “Kim was just as sweet and beautiful as she could be,” says Imrisik. “A very hands-on mom.”
As for the girls at the center of the Gutzlers’ world, Piper and Sailor were together constantly, friends say. And Piper, the more athletic of the two (softball in summer, basketball in winter), was known as something of a peacemaker when her fourth-grade classmates weren’t getting along, says Fairbanks. “Kids gravitated toward her.”
When classes resumed on Jan. 5 after the holiday break, Piper’s desk was in its usual place but her locker door was left open and a box placed inside. It quickly filled with notes and drawings from grieving friends. “It’s hard to see,” says superintendent Michael Brink. The Gutzler girls’ cousin Sierra, a freshman at Nashville Community High School who was involved with the Drama Club, was to be the first formally mourned, at funeral services scheduled for Jan. 7. Marty, Kimberly and Piper were to share a single funeral service on Jan. 9 at the Trinity Lutheran Church. “We rejoice in the life that our Lord gave them to live,” says pastor Matthew Wietfeldt, telling PEOPLE that the family’s active participation in the congregation extended to fund-raising and “the best deal on furniture too.” “The loss of the Gutzlers,” the pastor says, “is a devastating one.”
For no one more than young Sailor. “She’s having an extremely hard time,” Wilkins told CNN after speaking with a family member. Dr. Christina Hibbert, a family-grief psychologist and author of This Is How We Grow, says Sailor’s age may help insulate her—for a time. “Her brain might not be developed enough to comprehend the finality of death, and that could protect her from having to experience it head-on right away.”
And she does not face her darkness alone. The family friend in tight-knit Nashville describes Sailor as being in the embrace of all the relatives—grandparents, aunts and uncles, most of whom live in her neighborhood—who remain. Already they have set up a website for memorial donations to Sailor’s future, sailorgutzler fund.com. And Imrisik, when she visited the Gutzler home the weekend of the accident, found Sailor sandwiched between two cousins on the couch, playing video games and being cared for by her half sister Kasie. “Sailor was very quiet, but she was playing and laughing,” says Imrisik. “She told someone else that she has to be strong for her mom and dad because they would want her to be strong.”
Whether Sailor knew it or not, she was echoing the inspirational poster her father shared on his Facebook page Dec. 28, in the final days of what would be their last family vacation: “If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it!” And there will be earthly help as well. “We will all come together to raise this child,” says the family friend. “We will do what needs to be done because it needs to be done. Everybody will look out for her.”